February 9, 2012 in Washington Voices

Hardy hummingbird toughs out winter

Pat Munts
 

An Anna’s hummingbird sits in a lilac bush in December waiting to zip in for a drink from Jim and Sheryl White’s feeders.
(Full-size photo)

Jim and Sheryl White of Spokane Valley got a little busy this fall and didn’t think about taking their hummingbird feeder down until mid-October. Good thing, too.

“We were sitting on the deck and thought we heard a hummingbird,” Jim White said. His wife said it couldn’t be, as they’d all left a month earlier. Just then, the hummingbird zipped up to their nearly empty feeder for a drink. The Whites quickly refilled the feeder hoping to give their guest a good meal so it could continue to migrate.

However, the bird was still there in November and it was getting cold. Jim White started to get concerned and turned to the Internet for help. Just how do you help a hummingbird survive a Spokane winter? Some pictures helped identify the bird as an Anna’s hummingbird, a native of the West Coast. He found that they aren’t very common in Eastern Washington even in the summer. How this one ended up here for the winter is a mystery.

Unlike other hummingbirds, the Anna’s hummingbird is a little hardier. It doesn’t migrate and can be found in its coastal home range year-round. It is larger than other hummingbirds and survives the winter by eating insects as well as feeder nectar. The combination of size and diet give it an edge to survive colder weather.

Now it’s February and the Whites and “Annabelle” have settled into a routine. At first light Jim White is up to check his three feeders. He keeps 40 watt lights about six inches from two of them to keep them thawed. Annabelle flies in from her night roost somewhere beyond the field south of their house and lands in a lilac bush to check things out. She soon zips up to a feeder for a big drink before flitting to a nearby tree. White sits quietly with his coffee and watches her; she spooks easily.

And so the day goes. Annabelle will come several times an hour for a sip and then go off to hunt bugs; yes there are bugs out in the winter. She catches them on the fly, a method Whitecalls “hawking.” If it’s sunny, she’ll sit in the trees to warm up. Toward evening, she will come in for one last drink a little after sunset and then fly off to her roost. White noted it’s been down to 9 degrees this winter in their yard. “On the coldest mornings she appears about 10 minutes early,” he said. They have changed the sugar-to-water ratio for their nectar from 1 part sugar to 4 parts water to a 1-to-3 mix. This not only adds more energy to the mix but keeps the mix thawed down to about 25 degrees.

Reality is always close though. “She is a wild creature. We know there may be a morning that she doesn’t come in,” White said. “We only hope it’s because she has moved on.”

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@ inlandnwgardening.com.


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